Divorce and Grandparents
The effects of divorce on parents and children have been widely discussed and well documented, but family break-ups hurt grandparents, too. Often, however, the heartbreak grandparents experience takes a back seat as they meet the needs of their children and grandchildren.
"Generally grandparents are a safe haven for children, and in the instance of divorce, may be the only adults a child feels he or she can rely on," says Susan Newman, Ph.D., author of Little Things Mean a Lot: Creating Happy Memories with Your Grandchildren (Crown Publishers, 1996).
Newman suggests that, if possible, grandparents should keep the same visiting schedule and activities as before the divorce process started. This stability can really open the lines of communication for grandparents and their grandchildren. Grandchildren may have questions, fears or comments that need to be heard, and a grandparent can be a good, neutral sounding board. "Grandparents will want to listen to what their grandchildren have to say, because listening (even if you don't have answers) tells children you care about them and their concerns," Newman says. "This is especially important when parents may be focused on the tangles of divorce."
As tempting as it may be to try to "fix" things, it is best to stay neutral through the divorce process. Instead of taking sides and offering unwanted advice, step back from the situation and offer to help each of the divorced parents. It will go a long way toward future visitation if you stay neutral and positive.
"If the grandparents have a negative relationship with the children's mother or father, it will severely impact the relationship they have with their grandchildren," says Elise Edelson Katch, a Denver, Colo.-based licensed clinical social worker and author of The Get: A Spiritual Memoir of Divorce (Health Communications, 2001).
It is crucial to develop cordial relationships with the ex-daughter-in-law or ex-son-in-law. Expect to encounter negativity from an unhappy and hurting parent. Resist the temptation to give in and pass on the negativity to your grandchildren. Ignore the comments and find something positive to say instead. Be careful, too, that grandchildren do not hear any heated discussions over the phone or in person. In return, you may be surprised at how eagerly children develop their own positive outlooks about you, despite what an upset parent may be saying. When you choose to be pleasant and upbeat around your grandchildren, they will feel loved and secure.
If you are fortunate enough to keep regular visits with your grandchildren, keep in mind they may need to vent from time to time about the divorce. Perhaps they're not happy with a new stepfather or stepmother. It is crucial to listen with an open mind and not pass on any negative feelings you may have about the parent in question. Grant your grandchildren the freedom to express their emotions. When they know they are safe to do so, you'll become the rock on which they can lean. Of course, if you feel there is a legitimate concern, then talk to the parent.
Your heartbreak may be hard to mask at times, but if you keep your focus on your grandchildren, your patience and peacekeeping agenda should pay off. However, if you have exhausted all your efforts and a parent refuses to let you visit your grandchildren, seek legal advice.
Roadblocks to Visitation
Not all divorces end amicably. Sometimes a child's parent makes it difficult to maintain a relationship with grandchildren. This was the situation for Beth* of Elwood, Ind. After her daughter's divorce, her daughter moved to Florida, and Beth wasn't allowed to see her grandchildren for a period of time. Luckily, her daughter eventually allowed visits, but it still wasn't an ideal situation.
"Time soothes many of the rough spots in divorce," Newman says. "It is often better for the grandparents to step back, difficult as that may be, until the divorce kinks are worked out." However, she strongly suggests that grandparents don't give in to discouragement. As time goes on, even the most problematic parents often soften and reconsider the important role a grandparent has in a child's life. "My relationship with my daughter was strained to say the least," Beth says. "We tried to be upbeat, but the past kept getting brought up."
Newman says a cooling off period when the tension is running high can yield positive results later. In time, Beth was able to visit more. Now she makes regular trips to visit her grandchildren every three months and calls every Sunday. She also sends gifts and cards to stay connected.
"Grandparents might want to attempt a phone call to the difficult parent to request a time with the grandchildren," Newman says. She also advises to have a specific time and game plan. When making the visitation arrangements, be flexible and consider the needs of the parents and the grandchildren's schedule, too.
Gently remind the parent that the grandchildren are foremost in your mind and that you want to help make this uncertain time in their lives a little easier by spending time with them. "Grandparents offer security and stability in a world that is falling apart around the grandchildren," Newman says. "They have time and motivation to do things that focus on the grandchildren and can help provide supervision or care when it's difficult for either divorcing partner."
Tips for Weathering Divorce
According to Elise Edelson Katch, a Denver, Colo.-based licensed clinical social worker and author of The Get: A Spiritual Memoir of Divorce (Health Communications, 2001), grandparents who want to remain connected with grandchildren after a divorce should keep the following tips in mind:
- Love grandchildren unconditionally.
- Be considerate and understanding of grandchildren.
- Never say anything negative about the grandchildren's parents.
- Act in respectful ways to grandchildren.
- Never complain to grandchildren about things they cannot control (i.e. "You never call.").
- Listen to grandchildren.
- Never be critical.
Fun Ways to Stay Connected
- Send fun greetings periodically.
- E-mail letters of encouragement and silly e-greeting cards.
- E-mail a link to a Web site you think your grandchild would enjoy.
- Telephone on a weekly basis.
- Give a gift subscription to a magazine with your grandchild's interests in mind.
- Send small gifts or "fun money" to buy comics or candy.
- Send a disposable camera to take pictures of favorite things. When you get together, make a scrapbook from the photos.
- Make a video of things you normally do around the house: Grandpa working in the garden or Grandma making cookies. Read, sing or dance. Have fun with it!
- Plan a time when the grandchildren can stay for an extended visit. Stock their
favorite foods and plan something special that can turn into an annual event.
* Last name withheld to protect privacy.